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Jamaican-born poet Shara McCallum
Photo from official website

My Poetry Corner February 2022 features the poem “Springbank” from the poetry collection, No Ruined Stone, by the award-winning Caribbean American poet and writer Shara McCallum. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1972, to an Afro-Jamaican father and a Venezuelan mother, she was nine years old when she migrated to Miami, Florida, with her mother and sisters. Her father, a singer and songwriter suffering from schizophrenia, stayed behind in Jamaica where he took his life not long after their departure.

McCallum graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami. She earned her MFA from the University of Maryland and a PhD in African and Caribbean Literature from Binghamton University in New York. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals, anthologies, and textbooks throughout the USA, Latin America, Europe, and Israel. No Ruined Stone, published in the UK and USA in 2021, is the latest of her six books of poetry.

No Ruined Stone is a collection of speculative narrative poetry inspired by McCallum’s first visit to Scotland in 2015, where she unearthed historical records revealing that the country’s most celebrated poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796), had made plans to leave his homeland. Throughout the late summer and into the fall of 1786, Burns booked passage on three different vessels that sailed to Jamaica. He had accepted employment as a “bookkeeper” on a slave plantation in Jamaica owned and managed by his countryman, Charles Douglas. Was he trying to escape financial ruin as a struggling tenant farmer? Or was he fleeing responsibility for having impregnated a young woman out of wedlock? At the time, he was also working on publication of his first book of poetry which was well received, changing the course of his life.

Scotland’s National Poet Robert Burns (1759-1796)
Portrait by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840)
Photo Credit: National Galleries of Scotland

Voiced by a fictionalized Burns and granddaughter, Isabella, a “mullata” passing for white, McCallum’s collection is an imagined history of what would have happened if Burns had sailed for Jamaica in September 1786 on the Bell. Burns barely survives the voyage to Kingston, Jamaica. In the poem “Voyage,” he tells his brother Gilbert back home: …my illness / at sea gave way to a greater unhinging […] When we arrived / and for many a time after, / I was nine parts, nine tenths / out of ten, stark staring mad.

In working for Charles Douglas, “Master” at Plantation Ayr Mount, Burns confesses in “Landscape” that he has become / the detested Negro driver I feared, / harrowed by the feeling of the damned. In “Dear Gilbert,” he writes of his inner conflict and silent complicity: When talk turns to slavery, / arguments for its brutal necessity / prevail, and I sit at the table of plenty, / bite back my tongue…

Master Douglas has no such qualms about the brutality of slavery. In “Douglas’s Reply,” he says of his brother Patrick living in comfort in Scotland: My brother / believes he is good. And I let him. I am who / stops his fiction from fraying, who keeps / his whole damn world spinning. / Like so many of our countrymen / at a remove, he has turned soft and warms / to the notion these Africans have souls.

Burns becomes obsessed with Nancy (1769-1825), an enslaved African woman, ten years younger, serving in the Great House at Springbank on Plantation Ayr Mount. In “For Promised Joy,” he suffers in vain to resist the sight and scent of her: Suffer me / to ask love to dwell / in a place not meant / for love’s habitation…

In October 1788, Agnes, Nancy’s child for Burns, is born into slavery. In “Augur,” Burns speaks of Mornings, making my way to the fields / there, the child at her side uncommonly / fair and growing wilful, all the more / like her mother…

In the poem “Rising,” with failing health and fearful that he would soon have to account for his sins, Burns confesses in a yet unwritten letter to his brother Gilbert:

…Brother, what would I say
in truth, but I have borne witness to,
been reluctant participant in this madness.
I have watched as all of us are bound
by Fate, cruel twine ordained
not by any law of God or Nature,
but of this world we have designed.
This world, where profit is the first
and last word. Violence, both rule and reason.

Burns’ fictive daughter Agnes (1788-1806) was eight years old when he died in 1796. He was not there to prevent Master Douglas from raping her. He was not there when she died giving birth to his granddaughter Isabella, born in 1806 into slavery at Springbank. Isabella describes her father Douglas in “Story, The First”: He saw everything for the taking. And took. / Your daughter, my mother barely out of girlhood / when he began with her, was no exception.

In the featured poem, “Springbank,” Isabella relates that Master Douglas freed her and her grandmother Nancy, as well as paid for their passage from Kingston, Jamaica, to Scotland.

Was all the world I’d known.
A child there, I was hers, Miss Nancy’s kin,
no matter this skin, these eyes belonging
to his face. Your father could not
look at you without seeing disgrace
was the only answer she’d relent to offer.

Even on her deathbed, Nancy never revealed how she had succeeded in securing their freedom. But freeing Isabella from slavery came at a great sacrifice for Nancy.

In Kingston, my grandmother was passed off
as my slave. By the time our ship docked
in Greenock, she was my servant, and we
threaded into a tale, so tightly
woven no one would guess my origin.

In an interview with Saba Keramati for Frontier Poetry in September 2021, Shara McCallum said, “The book is entirely about memory and history…. Many of us are haunted by the ‘ruins’ of history, personal ones and collective ones we carry…. I know that retelling a story and recasting people and moments from the past can’t change what has already happened. But I believe it can alter and shape how in the present we see ourselves and others…. [T]he silence, lies, and omissions we live with, in the narratives of slavery and colonialism still told, are ones I wanted to sound and try to redress.”

To read the complete featured poem and learn more about the work of Shara McCallum, go to my Poetry Corner February 2022.

Historical Footnote:
The Slave Trade Act of 1807 abolishes the British slave trade but does not abolish slavery. Eight years later, Charles Douglas dies at Springbank, Plantation Ayr Mount in Jamaica. In 1822, the Anti-Slavery Society is founded in Glasgow, Scotland. Scotsman Zachary Macaulay, who had worked as a Bookkeeper from 1784 to 1789 on a plantation in Jamaica, is a leading voice and figure in the Anti-Slavery movement. Slavery in the British West Indies is not abolished until 1833.